How Compensatory Learning Makes You A Superhero

David and Goliath - book coverI just read David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book. It’s exploring how what we think of as advantages might not be all that advantageous, and what we think of as disadvantages might actually work in your favor.

For one thing, making a simple intelligence test just a little bit harder (by making it hard to read) makes you slow down and think the questions through better, improving your score dramatically.

This is something I have noticed in myself with money. If I don’t feel that money is just a little bit tight, I don’t make as good of decisions. I behave impulsively. I spend it on things that might not be a good investment, simply because there are no immediate repercussions for doing so. But by making things just a little bit harder, I’m forced to think about what would be the best use of my resources, and in doing so, make better decisions. So it’s nice to see that this thinking is rooted in rationality.

Clearly, I can apply this logic elsewhere.

It has become fashionably recently to bash Gladwell’s writing. Popularizers are never very popular with the establishment. I’ve read several of the criticisms, and I think they all miss the point. No, the plural of anecdote is not data, but humans learn best with stories, and each story Gladwell represents is like a fable; it carries the seed of a new viewpoint within it. I believe we should always be seeking to challenge our paradigms.

Now, I will grant that the very first story in his book was utter poppycock. He uses the biblical tale verbatim to, ahem ‘prove’ according to “several medical experts” that Goliath had a tumor of the pituitary gland like Andre the Giant that supposedly made him partially blind. The first half of the story he uses historians to back him up, but apparently he could find no biblical scholars willing to conflate a biblical tale with eyewitness testimony.

The story does, however, illustrate his point quite well, which is why it didn’t get cut, I’d imagine.

David & Goliath

What Is Compensatory Learning?

Rather than explain in my own words, here is a direct quote explaining the concept.

Most of the learning that we do is capitalization learning. It is easy and obvious. If you have a beautiful voice and perfect pitch, it doesn’t take much to get you to join a choir. “Compensation learning,” on the other hand, is really hard. Memorizing what your mother says while she reads to you and then reproducing the words later in such a way that it sounds convincing to all those around you requires you to confront your limitations. It requires that you overcome your insecurity and humiliation. It requires that you focus hard enough to memorize the words, and then have the panache to put on a successful performance. Most people with a serious disability cannot master all those steps. But those who can are better off than they would have been otherwise, because what is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.

It is striking how often successful dyslexics tell versions of this same compensation story. “It was horrible to be in school,” a man named Brian Grazer told me. “My body chemistry would always change. I would be anxious, really anxious. I would take forever to do a simple homework assignment. I would spend hours daydreaming because I couldn’t really read the words. You’d find yourself sitting in one place for an hour and a half accomplishing nothing. Through seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth grade, I was getting mostly Fs, with an occasional D and maybe a C. I was only passing because my mom wouldn’t let them put me back.”

So how did Grazer get through school? Before any test or exam, he would start to plan and strategize, even in elementary school. “I would get together with someone the night before,” he said. “What are you going to do? How do you think you will answer these questions? I’d try and guess the questions, or if there was a way to get the questions or the tests beforehand, I would.”

By the time he hit high school, he’d developed a better strategy. “I challenged all my grades,” he went on, “which meant that literally every time I got my grade in high school, after the report cards came out, I would go back to each teacher and do a one-on-one. I would argue my D into a C and my C into a B. And almost every time–ninety percent of the time–I got my grade changed. I would just wear them down. I got really good at it. I got confident. In college, I would study, knowing that I was going to have this hour-long meeting afterward with my professor. I learned how to to everything possible to sell my point. It was really good training.”

All good parents try to teach their children the art of persuasion, of course. But a normal, well-adjusted child has no need to take those lessons seriously. If you get As in school, you never need to figure out how to negotiate your way to a passing grade, or to look around the room as a nine-year-old and start strategizing about how to make it through the next hour. But when Grazer practiced negotiation, just as when Boies practiced listening, he had a gun to his head. He practiced day in, day out, year after year. When Grazer said that was “really good training,” what he meant was learning to talk his way from a position of weakness to a position of strength turned out to be the perfect preparation for the profession he ended up in. Grazer is now one of the most successful movie producers in Hollywood of the past thirty years. Would Brian Grazer be where he is if he weren’t a dyslexic?

Gladwell  went on to say that some success comes from being an outsider. When you’ve been pushed out of the herd, you have to figure out how to succeed in your own way.

So it got me thinking about the ways in which I have been an outsider, and have been unable to achieve success in the usual way. For starters, business: I couldn’t get a job growing up, because I lived too far from town. So instead I started little businesses because it was the only way for me to make money.

Because of my head injury, I have to force myself to articulate something clearly (because the chances are I won’t know what I was talking about later) and to write everything down.

[Tweet “When you’ve been pushed out of the herd, you have to figure out how to succeed in your own way”]

Medically, my body is such a mess that I have to be very disciplined about food and rest. No unsustainably burning the candle at both ends for short term gains! However, this means that almost all my gains are well-consolidated.

Rather than improving on our strengths, overcoming our weaknesses is what appears to really test our mettle and temper our steel.

If Adversity Is So Beneficial, Why Don’t We Arrange More of It?

Another anecdote in Gladwell’s book is about how a team of nerdy blonde girls started a basketball team. Because they weren’t very good, they did the only thing they could do — full court press, all game, every game.

Gladwell wants to know why other teams don’t do this. It obliterates most of the advantage that good players have, because they aren’t given the room to use their excellent ball-handling skills.

The conclusion he comes to is twofold. One is that holy fuck it’s hard to keep up a full court press for 90 minutes. Few teams apparently have the heart and stomach to run themselves ragged like that. And the second is that is doesn’t seem quite sporting. Full court press basketball is chaotic and ugly, not beautiful. People are winning without having the skills that makes good basketball.

And so most people, particularly the losers — the people who did it “right” and still didn’t succeed — feel that they’re ruining the sport, regardless of whether it’s technically illegal or not.

This phenomenon sounds odd at first: until you realize that’s the exact argument that persuades kids (and their parents) to “invest” in increasingly expensive educations. Sure, we’ve heard there are more effective ways to ensure our kid’s future security and success, but this is how we’ve always done it, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.

And that’s what people do.

Until they can’t.

Compensatory Learning Only Appears When You Can’t “Be Like Normal People”

When we can’t make “how we’ve always done it” work for us, that’s what pushes us to try other avenues of success, develop other skills, or change the rules in a way that benefits you.

Every time I have an obstacle pop up in my life, I try to ask myself, “How is this a good thing for me?” There is nearly ALWAYS a silver lining. And while my strengths remain my strengths, the compensatory learning transforms weaknesses into superpowers.

What’s your superpower, and how did you develop it?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *